How to Fail at Live Training

Lisa woke up slightly terrified about today. Fresh out of college and in her first “real” job as the Training Coordinator for a retail chain, she faced a moment that, at least in her mind, would define her job success – her first live training event. She held sole responsibility for the success or failure of the event and how her boss viewed her in this new role to the company.

For weeks Lisa prepared her two-hour presentation on selling skills and dealing with difficult customers. Her education degree drilled into her the importance of interaction, short training segments to keep the learners engaged, and using visuals that aided the material without becoming the material. But there were so many details surrounding a live event, she was terrified she’d forgotten something in the logistics. She’d spent all her focused effort working on the curriculum.

At the end of the day, Lisa felt her presentation went fairly well. The audience only seemed somewhat engaged and Lisa worried they didn’t learn very much. Post-event surveys showed the audience felt like Lisa did a good job presenting, but there were many negative comments about the room, food, venue, and general logistics of the event. Lisa was puzzled by the negative surveys and comments on “unimportant stuff.” Thankfully, she had a mentor who watched the whole day unfold and was ready to help her understand where things went sideways.

When preparing for a live event there can be hundreds of details to plan, order, track, and verify. Many of these are separate from the actual curriculum planning for the event, and significantly increase the burden on the training team, especially if it’s a one-person team! Building yourself a checklist so things aren’t missed can go a long way towards running a smooth event. Here are some items and questions that should be included:

How will you have the room physically set-up?
Will the attendees be seated in rows of chairs, at round tables, half-round tables, or rectangular tables? [My rule of thumb is always to seat 2 people to a 6-foot table and 3 people to an 8-foot table. This is less than hotels and conference centers normally to (they sit 3 people to a 6-foot table) so it’s a special request, but the attendees are much more comfortable.] Will the set-up need to change part way through the training day due to the agenda? How is this arranged with the banquet staff? What will the traffic flow of the room be like when people need to get up during the event and leave the room? What about at dismissal times such as breaks? Will everyone bottleneck in certain locations? What about in an emergency?

What will the atmosphere of the room be like? (The learning environment)
What type of music will be playing when the attendees arrive and during breaks? [I prefer soft jazz.] How will the room be decorated? What will table center pieces be if sitting at round tables? [One time, for a sporting goods training, my team decorated the tables with spent shotgun shells that were picked up at the local gun range.] What types of banners or graphics will be displayed around the room? What types of banners or graphics will be outside the room so attendees can find it easily? Are there things about the room that will distract attendees such as large windows onto crowded areas, bar TVs, strong heat or air conditioning returns, close proximity to recreation areas such as a pool, etc., and if so, can you minimize their impact?

What type(s) of audio and visual equipment will be needed?
Do you need a microphone? If so, a wireless, lapel, handheld, or other special type? More than one? Do you need speakers to plug into a computer? Do you need a projector or more than 1 due to room size? If there is more than one speaker, will successive speakers be hooking up their own computers to the projector [nightmare! avoid at all costs] or providing their slide decks to the organizer which are then put on a common computer for presentation?

What is the plan for food and refreshments?
Will the tables have water? Will there be other drinks available in the room such as coffee, tea, or sodas? Will there be snacks in the room all the time or only at set breaks that are pre-arranged with the banquet or support staff? Are the snacks chosen to reflect how alert/tired the attendees will be throughout the day when they are served? [On a two day training seminar, I always choose high-sugar snacks for the afternoon to give everyone a sugar rush before the end of the day.] What about breakfast/lunch/dinner? Is there another place for attendees to go eat or does the training site double as the eatery? Is there any possibility that ‘extra’ people will show up for meals such as company leaders? What preferences do the attendees reasonably have for food and drink? [For example: if the group lives on energy drinks during their normal day, Mtn. Dew might be a good, less expensive alternative to stock heavily.]

How will the arrangements foster interaction?
Can people see each other for discussion times? Will attendees have name tags and are they designed so critical information can be seen from a reasonable distance? What about name plates/name tents at the chairs for the speaker to see who attendees are? Can short group discussions happen easily given the seating arrangement or are people too crowded to move around? Are attendees seated in a certain order or can they sit where they will? Does that cause problems one way or the other?

Other considerations:
Do any special arrangements need to be made for key people due to food allergies, travel times, etc.? Is there a back-up plan in case things go wrong? [I’ve seen everything from hotels losing power to projector bulbs exploding in the middle of events.] If the event is heavily attended by one sex or the other, are there alternate bathrooms to use during breaks?

I could keep going, but I think the point is made about how many details there are to cover. Any one of these, done wrong, can be a big enough distraction to the attendees that even the best curriculum fails. My pet peeves: sitting too tight, bad audio (especially when speakers try and convince me their voice is loud enough to not need a mic,) running out of food or drinks, and hotel staff that isn’t easily accessible if something goes wrong.

I’m really lucky to work with an exceptional hotel in Bozeman, MT, for most of my large events. The best hotel staffs will guide new trainers through a lot of these issues if they are asked for help. Never be afraid to ask the venue staff for advice. It’s what they do professionally every day.

Live events aren’t easy, and take way more work than most people realize. Start early and plan in advance as far as possible. (I try to start details up to six months out when possible.) Oh, and once you get all these things nailed down, then you need to start planning the curriculum…

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How a New Computer Taught Me to Be a Better Trainer

What I didn’t expect when I turned my new computer on for the first time at 6:45 am yesterday was a great object lesson on training. I was really excited about the computer because it represented a big improvement in performance that was badly needed when I edit video files and create eLearning content. Now I just needed to tweak the set-up to configure it the way I like it and I’d be all set. Yeah, not so much…


The company I work at has one of the best IT departments I’ve ever seen. They are professional, have excellent documentation, answer problems quickly, and are even friendly when you come back for the tenth time in the same day. (Unfortunately, they are a bunch of Green Bay Packers fans, but hey, no one is perfect. My Patriots put them to shame this year anyway.) In spite of the excellent work they do, my new laptop had a slew of problems when I powered it up and I was stopped cold from working, with no IT staff on-site yet to assist me.

I’ve got an incredibly busy schedule this week because there are two really important live training events on the horizon and both have a ton of details. With a computer that couldn’t run my key programs, I was in trouble. First, Microsoft Office didn’t work, then I was missing my editing software, and then I realized I couldn’t access my OneNote files, then…well, you get the idea. As I worked throughout the day with the IT team to get the computer fully functional, the object lesson on training began to dawn on me.

You see, I was (and still am) really excited about the change over from my old piece of crap Microsoft Surface to a shiny new Dell laptop. With more power, more storage, a better video card, and basically better everything else, my productivity would be noticeably increased. I was like a learner that is excited about a new change they just took training to understand. The change would be good and I was 100% behind it.

Like all change however, it had its deep pain points. Mired in the set-up of my new system, I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to switch computers. For a short time, this believer in change suddenly became an opponent to it, only because I encountered unexpected obstacles and didn’t immediately see a way through them. I moved from supporter to detractor in the blink of an eye as I faced down the pile of work I wasn’t getting done.

Then, late in the afternoon, Zach swooped in and saved me. Major issues solved, I was suddenly back in the game and moving towards full functionality. Looking back, it’s interesting to analyze the swings in my outlook on the day. Those same swings are what people go through when faced with a new project, a change in procedures, or even a new boss (I just got one of those too.)

As trainers and managers, it’s important to recognize people will face these swings, and do our best to manage the change and help them expect, prepare for, and overcome the obstacles. What’s the old saying – forewarned is forearmed? Set expectations. Help people prepare. Be okay with frustrations and set-backs, but work to overcome them with open communication and realistic timelines. Also, don’t be afraid to tap an expert to overcome obstacles you can’t face alone.

Change is hard. Failing change is harder.


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The Unexpected Value of Being Simple

My wife is on a minimalism kick and has been for years now. I’m the guy that likes stuff – toys, mementos, books, stubs from great movies I attended, neat bookends, old stuffed animals, clever coffee cups…you get the idea. I sometimes think she’d be happy with one picture of a moose on the wall in an otherwise bare room, and truthfully, I used to silently make fun of her for it. “Where’s the character of the room?” I’d ask myself. It’s so borring!  It has no visual excitement. That couch must have throw pillows to be “right.” Of course we need rugs in the kitchen and a little Statue of Liberty in that spot over there…


But like every great wife (and mine is amazing), she’s slowly converted me. There is a certain peace about having less stuff around. Something about visual clutter sort of stresses me out in a way I didn’t used to recognize. So next month, we’re going to play a little minimalism game. Every day we are going to get rid of a number of things equal to the date. So on March 1st, I’m ditching, donating, recycling, selling, or giving away 1 thing. On March 15th, it will be 15 things. By the end of the month I’ll eliminate 496 things. She’s doing the same. So if everything goes like we’re planning, we’ll clear out almost 1000 items from our house. Sounds scary, but I’m really excited to see what the result looks like.

What qualifies as an item? Anything – a pen, that extra pad of sticky notes that we’ve had for 10 years, an old empty storage box kept around just in case, that old computer in the garage that needs to be recycled, the 3rd copy of that same screwdriver, etc. I expect the first half of the month to be pretty easy, but the last half is going to be tough. The only way I’ll ever get through it is with her help and accountability.

As we discussed doing this, it occurred to me that I could do the same thing in my office at work, though on a smaller scale. As work gets more stressful, I find I need to keep my space peaceful and simple so that it doesn’t add to the chaos that is my over-busy life. You know what’s cool about having only one picture on a wall? It’s the only thing you look at. (So make it a great picture!) There aren’t a million other things competing for attention.

It occurs to me that my schedule, volunteer activities, and to-do list (as much as possible) should be this way as well. Being involved in too much stuff just distracts me. Working on multiple things at once just means I do them all with mediocre results. Having my email constantly pinging while I try to get something done gets overwhelming. It turns out, the whole idea of minimalism really does have merit for this guy.

One other thought for my fellow trainers out there. This principle applies to things like eLearning, and learning space design as well. Drop the clutter. Keep it clean, simple, and focused. Then you aren’t fogging the minds of your learners with unnecessary chaos. You can even apply this same principle to curriculum design.


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Advice to New Managers

Nathaniel was excited. After working part time at the store for almost a year, while simultaneously holding down a full-time job in another division of the company, his hard work finally paid off. At just 21, he’d been promoted to Store Manager over his peers and was THE guy now. Time to start fixing things. All those illogical work schedules, the lack of consistent staff oversight, low sales, poor community outreach-it was all going to change. In his first week, he started flexing his new authority muscles and people who’d been his co-workers just a few days ago were now answering to him about why they didn’t do their jobs well enough. This was his show now.


Fast forward one year. Nathaniel’s staff was now at the equivalent of 100% turnover. A few long-term employees were still there, but some part-time positions had turned over several times. It would take Nathaniel a few more years to realize his bad management practices and start to get his attitude and actions right. It turned out, all those things he thought were terrible when he first took over, really weren’t all that bad. It was ultimately the mentoring by his boss, a few friends, and other leaders in his industry that taught him how to be a good manager and earn the loyalty of his people.

Management is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t done it much, or is selling you something. Nathaniel is me (it’s my middle name) and the story above is completely true. When I took my first management job and flashed around my superduper Business Management degree, I sucked. I was utterly unprepared for my position and good employees left my store because I cared more about being in charge than about them and their development. I thank God there were people around me who cared enough to mentor me, have tough conversations, point me to resources where I could learn how to be a better manager, and invest time into me.

You might be a new manager who doesn’t have that blessing. No matter what industry or company you work in, for-profit or non-profit, one thing is always consistent for managers. People. You are in authority over people and can directly influence their lives, in a significant way, on a daily basis.

The responsibility that goes with your position necessitates a wide variety of disciplines. None of them come easy, but with work and grit, you can become a great manager. Here are some tips:

  1. Becoming a manager does not suddenly make you all-knowing. Asking your team for help on subjects you don’t fully know not only shows a healthy dose of humility, but it also makes them feel very valued. If you are afraid that asking will make you feel like you don’t know enough to hold your job, ask in a way that shows leadership. For example: If John is a retail manager but can’t remember how to do a closing procedure on the credit card machine, he can ask one of his staff to walk him through it so he can document the procedure. Now John knows the procedure and also has it documented for training purposes later.
  2. People matter more than anything else. If you take care of your people, your people will take care of you. When you have a happy, well-led staff that believes in you and knows you’ll have their back, they will move mountains for you. Suddenly better sales, harder work, pitching in extra for the team, all become easy asks of the staff. Without that belief and buy-in, the only thing they will be motivated by is money, and that is fleeting. Invest in your staff a little every day. Ask them what motivates them, what excites them, and how you can provide more of both. Then do it.
  3. You can be friends with your team, or their manager-not both. One of you reading this just thought “that’s true for most people, but I can do it.” You are wrong. Being friends is fun, and makes you feel like you fit into the group better, until the day you have to discipline one of your employees. Then it all falls apart. Absolutely be friendLY, but you should not be hanging out with your employees after hours, sharing frustrations about the company, or anything else that approaches the line between boss and friend.
  4. If you say you’ll do something, follow through all the way. Trust is so essential between a team and their manager. There are no second chances at this. It is okay if you have to change a decision for business reasons, but make sure you fully explain why. You aren’t a parent, so “because I said so” is never, ever a reason.
  5. Learn basic human resource (HR) law. There are tons of great links on the internet, and this critical area cannot be overlooked. Nothing can get you in trouble faster than breaking HR policies or procedures at your company. Find a mentor, and get advice. If your company is big enough to have a dedicated HR person, have them on speed dial and build a solid relationship with them right away.
  6. If you are having a performance or behavior problem with someone on your team, make sure you keep good documentation. Then, if it gets to the point that you have to let them go, you have the back-up you need. It’s better to err on the side of too much documentation, then not enough. The reason this one is listed AFTER “learn basic HR law” is because you’ll learn why, how, and when to document when you are learning that basic HR law.
  7. Learn numbers. Even the best people-manager in the world can’t succeed if they don’t understand the numbers of their business. You need to be able to figure out things like turnover percentage, return on investment (ROI), margin, markup, net income, and sales tax. Find a mentor if you need one. Read books. Take classes. Whatever it takes. But learn your business math.
  8. Train yourself every day. Find something you don’t know, and learn it. Read blogs (like this one!), start reading down the top 20 business book lists, stay up-to-date on current research in your field. Remember, if you aren’t moving forward, you are falling behind. There is no standing still.

Being a new manager is an exciting, terrifying, challenging, nightmarish, joyous experience. You have the opportunity to lead a team of people towards a really great work experience and you also have the opportunity to make work a really lousy part of your day. The great news is, you have control over that. Of all that I’ve listed above, I’d say #7 is probably the most important. If you genuinely follow that one, the rest sort of fall into line over time. Identify your weakest area and your strongest, then work on both. What can you learn and apply today?


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Advice for Those New to Learning and Development

Learning & Development. Training. Talent Development. Staff Development. Human Resource Training Department. People in this line of work fall under many different names. Studies show the vast majority of people in the US that work in the field of training did not pursue that field intentionally. Maybe you are in that group – suddenly finding yourself in a cool job but without a lot of formal training on doing training. Or, maybe you chose Learning & Development purposefully as your career. In either case, in order to save you from the mistakes of your peers, here is some advice as you start out in this fantastic field of work:


  1. Show those around you how eager you are to learn and grow. Ask questions about everything. Be teachable. In doing so, you begin to develop a wide body of knowledge about your company and its people, and thus greatly increase your value.
  2. The answer is always “no” if you don’t ask. Do you want to attend an L&D conference, buy new software, get a new camera, or plan a huge training event? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. But do it with a large dose of humility and a solid grasp on how that thing you are asking for will benefit the company’s bottom line.
  3. This is business, not charity. Your job exists to improve the people around you so that the company makes more money. Never lose sight of that. In L&D it can be very difficult to map a clear return on investment (ROI) to particular training activities. There are just too many factors that play into the outcomes. Show clear ROI when you can, and always strive to clearly communicate the benefits of different activities. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice on how to show results better.
  4. Seek wisdom. There are a wealth of fantastic resources out there that will make you better at your job. Scores of great L&D blogs, free webcasts, exceptional paid conferences, books like Disney U, The Accidental Instructional Designer, and Telling Ain’t Training, and even just picking up the phone and calling others in your field are all resources you can tap to keep from reinventing the wheel. Take advantage of them. Set aside a little time each day to educate yourself. Making this a priority that doesn’t get shoved aside when you are busy will pay off incredibly well in the long run.
  5. Fail often. If you never fail, you are playing the game too safe. Don’t be afraid to try new things, take new approaches, and be a little crazy. My favorite Thomas Edison quote is “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” A word of caution though: failure only helps if you learn from it. Analyze everything you do for ways you can do it better next time. Only then is failure a positive thing. (And be sure to communicate your failures and their lessons to your boss so they see how you are growing.)
  6. Don’t be an order taker. Never assume that “training” is the right answer, until you’ve analyzed the situation and definitively determined it actually is the solution to the problem. If a manager comes to you and asks for training on a certain topic, have a conversation about why they want training. In doing so, try to identify other possible causes for the skill gap. Maybe that staff member isn’t selling to their potential because their computer crashes every day and their phone has a short in it. That’s a lot easier and cheaper to fix than designing sales training for a person that doesn’t need it.
  7. Strive for perfection, but be okay with falling short. Done is better than perfect. Every writer, artist, designer, actor, and public speaker will tell you they can always go back and tweak one more thing to make it “better.” If you let that tweaking stall you out, you’ve gone way too far.
  8. Study adult learning theory. Science is teaching us a wealth of information about how adults learn. This info, when understood and properly applied, can dramatically change how you design training activities. Every minute you spend understanding better how adults learn will make you better at your job.
  9. Understand the two most important words in training are “Show me.” Assessing the effectiveness of your training is critical, and the best way to do that is to have the learner demonstrate their understanding of new knowledge.

Learning and Development is an incredibly rewarding career field. The job is literally to help others reach their full potential. It’s like being a teacher without all the discipline problems, and with more funding, pay, and technology. Try to be a little better tomorrow than you were today, and be better today than you were yesterday.

Working on all of these at once is a lot to ask a new trainer. Which two can you pick and start improving? How can I help you?


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Why You Must Master the Rules Before Breaking Them

“To break the rules, you must first master them.”

I’m currently in Las Vegas attending at tradeshow for work, and I saw an advertisement (pictured below) with this trademarked quote. At first, I just thought it was kind of cool. Then I thought about it a little more, and it stuck with me enough that I’m actually changing my article today from my previously planned topic.


Some of the greatest writers, speakers, artists, and business people were recognized rule breakers. People like Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Claude Monet, Earnest Hemmingway and many others bucked tradition and the establishment to ultimately become masters of their craft. But their choice to break the rules didn’t happen nonchalantly. Each had a deep understanding of the way things should be done before choosing to break the rules in their own ways. But why is mastering the rules so important? Because shortcuts don’t pay off when trying to be great at something.

Too often today we see novices trying to shortcut to mastery by making their own rules up about how to accomplish something. Before I go further, let me spit out one caveat: lightning strikes, luck happens, genius exists. However, for the vast majority of people, none of those occur and they just end up failing what they were trying to do.

I see this a lot in the training industry when it comes to adult education. There are some well-known and scientifically proven principles about how adults learn, what keeps them engaged, and best practices in how to structure their training. Yet I often see or hear about novice Instructional Designers or Subject Matter Experts departing from these principles to try and create something new, fun, flashy, or “different”. What their learners are often left with is wasted time and failed training.

One of the biggest places this is visible is in gamification. For those that don’t know, gamification is a word mash of games and education. It’s essentially the attempt to make learning fun by turning it into a game targeted at adults. But as anyone in the gaming industry will tell you, there are a lot of rules around how to make a successful game that keeps the player interested, engaged, and challenged at just the right level. Not only does a gamification designer need to know that rule set, but they also need to know and understand adult learning principles. Know only one or the other, and Super Mario’s cart is going off the track to crash and burn.

When someone lacks a mastery of the rules for any given situation, they also lack the wisdom and understanding to know what rules can be broken, and when. One illustration of this would be the use of capitalization and punctuation in marketing ads. Looking around me at the ads in view, I see many that don’t capitalize or punctuate correctly. They are an English teacher’s nightmare. But they are also brilliant marketing. The copywriter knew the rules, and chose to break them in a specific way to convey the marketing message. Well done. The writer is applauded for their work rather than failed out of English class because they know what rules to break, and the proper way to do so.

Know the rules. Master them. Have a deep understanding of them. Then, based on your knowledge, choose when to break them. Just please, don’t skip the first part and move to the rule breaking. Many wasted training hours can be recovered with this single change.


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Why Helping Employees Through Hard Times Matters

One of my favorite movies is Forrest Gump, and one of my favorite scenes in the movie (there are many!) is when Forrest is running and steps in dog manure. The guy running with him says “Woah man, you just ran through a big pile of dog sh*t!” and Forrest responds “It happens.” Thus the famous bumper sticker saying was born.

Mr. Gump was right. Sometimes in life people run through that big pile, and often the best thing they can do is keep on going. In Simon Sinek’s latest viral video, he talks about the Millenial generation and their inability to cope with stress. They aren’t alone in this problem, though. I’ve met plenty of Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers that were just as bad.


The sad reality is, for adults, there often aren’t any parents around to help them through those hard times. Whether we like it or not, often times that job falls to workplace leaders. In my career, I’ve dealt with employees struggling through breakups, divorces, family deaths (including suicides,) and accidents.  Once, the company I worked for even had to bail an employee out of jail who’d been arrested on the sales floor! I’d love to say that’s not an average day in management, but the truth is, that IS an average day in management.

Employees are people too.  They’re human, just like you and me. Sometimes the best loyalty builder you can have is genuinely caring for them when they go through a tough time. In my opinion, the best managers care about their people first and know the rest will fall into place. There are a lot of ways this can be accomplished:

  1. Be there to listen. As far back as September 1957, ‘listening’ appeared as a topic in the Harvard Business Review. In their article, Ralph Nichols and Leonard Stevens said, “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen.” They went on to describe the biggest problem with listening is that “we think much faster than we talk and this hinders our concentration.” They proposed that we institute formal training in schools to teach kids how to be better listeners. The key point then is still true today: listening is a learned skill that requires attention and focus. When someone needs you to be there to listen, focus, hard. The more you work at it, the better you will become. Every conversation is an opportunity to improve.
  2. Recognize when problems arise from lack of skill. Sometimes an employee steps in it because they simply didn’t know how to handle the situation. It could be anything from not being properly trained on the scenario they just faced, to lacking a life skill so they were incapable of dealing with the issue. Taking the time to find the reason for the employee stepping in a pile of smelly stuff, before reacting negatively, is a critical management skill, and lets you select an appropriate response that is in the best interest of the employee and the organization. Get to the root cause and then take steps to resolve it.
  3. Offer advice. Let’s set aside all the legal concerns that can arise from this point and just look at the idea. Managers are often more experienced than their employees. I’ve had employees ask me for advice on everything from how to make a budget, to what kind of car they should buy, to what I thought of their plans to pop “The Question” to their girlfriend. When appropriate, give that advice freely and be excited with the employee that they’ll have a solution. When not appropriate, never damage the relationship by simply turning them away. Be a connector. Go the extra mile to help them find someone that can help solve their problem.
  4. Follow up. They will believe you care when they see you remembered their issue and were concerned or interested enough to find out later how things turned out. I’ve even made notes in a calendar reminder for myself so that I could get details right when I followed up.
  5. Don’t fake it. Be genuine or they will see through it immediately. If you don’t care about people enough to be genuine, you have bigger issues to deal with. Time to start looking for someone that can help you.

Stepping in a pile of the brown stuff is something everyone does on occasion. It’s never fun, and it’s always appreciated when those around lend a helping hand. Be a leader no matter what title you have, and set the example by earning a reputation as a go-to helper.



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